Show . . . and Tell

The great Russian author Anton Chekhov once said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

chekhov

 

In a single sentence, Chekhov illustrates one of the fundamental tenets of good writing, something so ingrained in writers as to be self-evident; a core principle so universally accepted, acknowledged as truth, it is generally regarded as beyond debate . . .

“Show.  Don’t tell.”

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I can’t even count how many times I’ve encountered that piece of writer’s advice in my lifetime.  In nearly every essay or book or column on creative writing, “show, don’t tell” is right at the top of the list.  And rightfully so.  To be able to transport a reader, an author must be able to paint word-pictures that are crisp, clear, vivid–images that resonate and stick in the mind long after the page is turned.

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Consider the following example from The Grass Harp.  Here, in the story’s second paragraph, master wordsmith Truman Capote’s descriptions are so vivid, you are immediately placed in the world of his imagination . . .

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“If on leaving town you take the church road you soon will pass a glaring hill of bonewhite slabs and brown burnt flowers: this is the Baptist cemetery.  Our people, Talbos, Fenwicks, are buried there; my mother lies next to my father, and the graves of kinfolk, twenty or more, are around them like the prone roots of a stony tree.  Below the hill lies a field of high Indian grass that changes color with the seasons: go to see it in the fall, late September, when it has gone red as sunset, when scarlet shadows like firelight breeze over it and the autumn winds strum on its dry leaves sighing human music, a harp of voices.”

Reading a paragraph like that, the words and images are not soon forgotten.  It is Capote’s tremendous gift of language and style, and his ability to “show and not just tell,” that turns the trick.  The imagery is so vivid, it is as if he has taken a photograph and placed it in the margins of the page.  Close your eyes and imagine the field of high grass, the blades swaying in the autumn wind . . .

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And yet . . . for all its merit, “show, don’t tell,” is only half-true.

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At the end of chapter 8 in The Eye-Dancers, soon after arriving in the variant town of Colbyville, Mitchell Brant meets a girl by the name of Heather.  Red-faced and tongue-tied around girls, his speech impediment made worse than ever due to nerves, Mitchell is shocked when she calls him cute.  As the chapter ends, he watches her walk away, thinking about what has just transpired . . .

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“He just stood there, gaping after her.  Thoughts of the ghost girl, of getting back home to his mom and dad and sister were ten billion miles away.

“‘Cutie.’ She had called him ‘cutie.’

“For a second, one beautiful moment in time, he felt like a hero, like the guys at school who all the pretty girls wanted.

“He wished the feeling would last, linger like a sweet aftertaste.  But he knew it wouldn’t.  Not for him.  Not for the dork who couldn’t talk right.

“Not for Mitchell Brant.”

If you were to analyze this passage through a strict lens of “show, don’t tell,” it would fail miserably.  There is a lot of telling going on here.  We are told that, for a brief moment, Mitchell feels like a hero and wishes the feeling will last–though, ultimately, he realizes that it won’t.  But I would argue it is precisely this quality that sets the printed page apart from the Silver Screen.

silverscreen

 

In a movie or a television episode, the creators are forced to show, all the time.  Unless there is a voice-over, there can be no “telling” in a movie.  In the excerpt above, if The Eye-Dancers were to be made into a film (I can dream, can’t I?), maybe we would see Mitchell reaching after Heather’s retreating figure, grabbing a fistful of air.  Maybe his expression, initially, would tell us that he is basking in her compliment.  But then, with a twitch of the mouth, a downturn of the face, a shake of the head, the actor playing Mitchell would convey his sense that nothing could ever come of it, that the pretty girl he’d just met would never really be interested in him.

Maybe.  But even if this happens, it wouldn’t be with the same depth that fiction can provide.  In a story, a novel, we often go inside the POV character’s head, living with their thoughts, their secrets, their forbidden longings and deep-rooted fears.  We get to know them intimately, and in ways we never could in a movie.

And how is this possible?

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Because we are told what they are thinking.

At the start of A Separate Peace, by John Knowles, one of my favorite novels, the main character returns to his old stomping grounds, The Devon School.  And he tells us what he is feeling . . .

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“I didn’t entirely like this glossy new surface, because it made the school look like a museum, and that’s exactly what it was to me, and what I did not want it to be.  In the deep, tacit way in which feeling becomes stronger than thought, I had always felt that the Devon School had come into existence the day I entered it, was vibrantly real while I was a student there, and then blinked out like a candle the day I left.”

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“Show, don’t tell,” would be the appropriate mantra for a movie producer or a screenwriter.  But for a fiction writer?  There needs to be a blend, a happy medium of internal thoughts and outward displays, interior monologues and sequences where actions do all the speaking.

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“Show, don’t tell,” is only partially true.

When it comes to storytelling, perhaps we should say, instead . . .

“Show, and tell.”

showandtell

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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